We live in a world of constant distractions. The sounds your phone makes in order to draw your attention; the voices of your colleagues as they exchange pleasantries; mealtimes and so many other things compete for our attention each day.
This is the description of a typical day of the average individual; you wake in the morning and confirm if you received any message over the night. This is understandable as you are trying to build your “brand” and have to stay constantly updated. As you read one message, other things flash across. You see one of your friends “famzing” and as you comment, something else catches your attention. One hour passes by and so you rush off to work.
Upon arrival at work, you settle down but someone calls you. As you speak to the person and end the call, someone sends you a WhatsApp message. As you respond, a colleague walks into your office to tell you what they are going through. Because you are such an expert in these matters, you spend some time counselling your colleague who leaves feeling better then you settle down to do the real work.
But an email comes in. You have to read it because it is urgent. As you finish, your phone flashes as someone has made a new post on Instagram. You hail the person for his/her achievement and someone hails you back. You then decide to like, comment and share on different things. It’s lunchtime. You head out for a quick lunch with your friends. Two hours passes by.
You get back, fully determined now to knock out some valuable work. Then there’s another phone call. As an influencer, you decide to post your own correct post. Folks are in awe and keep commenting. Hailing you for having attended a conference, taken a picture in a choice spot, etc. It’s 6 pm! Time is so short and you’re swamped. You head home determined to do better the next day. Then the cycle repeats itself.
Now here’s what the latest statistics show. The average person goes to Instagram over a hundred times a day. It creates what is known as a “dopamine fix” which is what addicts use to take care of their addictions. Statistics also show that it takes a period of forty-five to ninety minutes for your body to be restored to normal levels after such distractions or fixes. The effect of this is that by being constantly distracted, your body isn’t settled enough to do deep work.
So, the question there is what is deep work? Best way to understand it as highlighted by Cal Newport is to compare it with shallow work. Surprisingly, some folks do well with shallow work. But just like anything in life, not everyone succeeds like that. And there are several reasons for this, ranging from the supposed laws of natural selection and other factors.
Shallow work though can be described as non-demanding logistical tasks that can be achieved while being distracted. THESE TEND NOT TO CREATE MUCH VALUE IN THE WORLD AND ARE EASY TO REPLICATE.
Binging on Netflix, checking email, browsing and trawling the internet, filling out timesheets etc. these are all examples of shallow work.
A small test before you continue reading. If you suspect you indulge in shallow work, try and stay away from Instagram until 4 pm and see how you react. There’s a new type of disorder that has emerged that is known as attention deficit trait (ADT) which is similar to attention deficit disorder (ADD), the difference between both of them is that while ADD is a natural disorder which the likes of Richard Branson suffer from, ADT comes about when we train our neurons and form bad habits that encourage shallow work
Years ago, I studied a book by an author, “Cal Newport” and he identified three groups that will reap huge benefits in the present era we find ourselves. These are highly skilled workers, the superstars and the owners of successful businesses. Being the owner of a business is good but being successful is a different kettle of fish entirely. So, to be a highly skilled worker or a superstar, which are probably achievable for the rest of us, there are two abilities that will make you thrive in any economy anywhere in the world.
The first is the ability to master hard or difficult things. If you cannot master hard things, you will be mediocre and will be average. It is not a science but just think of your office and consider those who seem to do well and get good opportunities. They appear to be able to master hard things. Again, if all you can do is perform or produce simplistic or shallow things, you will find it very difficult to master hard things.
To make this practical, you may be a whiz kid with the iPhone and be able to take great selfies that would wow your audience. Your twitter page is always buzzing with activities. However, these are consumer products. Most of the intelligent machines driving the economy of nations are more complex and require depth to master.
The second ability requires you to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. If you want to become elite, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value. The two core abilities just described depending on your ability to perform deep work.
There is what is called the “principle of least resistance”. We give in to what is the easiest thing for us to do at a particular time. Every human dislikes pain and wants pleasure. It’s a natural response. Let me say that I don’t believe in multitasking and there are studies out there now that shows that multitasking does your brain some harm. You generate distracting habits because you are always trying to do different things at the same time. It may work for shallow work, so if that’s what one wants to do with his day, then that’s fine.
But here’s how I look at it. Would you prefer to have books or materials that speak to the depth and would change generations to come or you want to leave quotable quotes on your IG and Twitter pages for likes and shares? No doubt, in the era we live in, those things matter and by constantly posting, you may become important and even give talks and have speaking engagements based on what you share. There’s a place for all of us in this world. But that’s probably based on time and chance because what you are doing can be replicated and isn’t deep. Anyone can do that and people are doing it while getting paid for it.
I do not pretend to have all the answers but here are my recommendations to go deep in our very distracted world:
- Schedule your day: You need to schedule your day or all will be lost. There is really no shortcut to this. If you fail to schedule, you will be lost in the sea of distractions and they are many. Science is beginning to show that the brain can only focus on deep work for a period of about four hours in a day so that means we will be constrained for time if we allow just anything to form part of our day. I consider the brain as having ‘mental muscles” as so I try to use it wisely so it does not burn out or wear down. All I can do is use myself as an example because this is what I have practised for the past seven years and it has worked for me. I get up by 4 am every day and read from 4 am – 6 am. Before I leave the office, I have scheduled what would form my tasks in the office once I get in. before I go to bed, I have already arranged what I would wear the following morning so I am not in a rush or using up my mental strength to think of where I left something or what I will do that morning. It has already been scheduled the night before. Thus, use the night, which for most of us is our weakest moment, wisely so you can win the day.
- Create rituals: In my view, scheduling moves forward to forming rituals. To make the most out of your deep work sessions, you need a level of strictness. Great minds ritualise and go strict because success in their work depends on their ability to go deep, again and again. For anyone who is specialising in the group in areas like energy, oil and gas and taxation, or anyone who wants to win a noble prize, you cannot achieve any of that without pushing your brain to its limit. There’s no one correct deep work ritual; the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
- Where you’ll work and for how long: Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This can be your office with the door shut and the desk cleaned off. Locate a place where you can always go deep, with minimal distractions. LEAVE YOUR PHONE AWAY FROM YOU WHEN YOU WANT TO GO DEEP. I heard that Ernest Hemingway, a noble prize winner for literature, never ate at his desk. He also did not read newspapers or any other thing when seated at his desk. He only worked at his desk. When I wake in the morning, I have a particular table I sit in where I concentrate. At the office as well, I try to minimise distractions on my table. When it gets cluttered, I clear it out.
- How you’ll work once you start to work: Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate repeatedly what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
- How you’ll support your work: Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.
Stay tuned on this blog same time tomorrow for the “Deep work in a distracted world 2″ by Davidson Oturu.